Friday, January 27, 2017

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman (1975): The Image Within

It is probably a mistake to label Robert Aickman (1914 - 1981) a horror writer. While his stories have been featured for decades in a myriad of horror fiction anthologies, I believe he was uncomfortable with confining his output to any single tradition; Aickman preferred to label his works as "strange stories." To me, this seems right and apt. Another word I'd use to describe his stories is "uncanny," since they rarely adhere to generic conventions but instead move subtly around them, hinting at unconscious drives, highlighting how the real world and the real people in it may be illusions obscuring darker forces at work. Odd occurrences do not add up; the killer does not remove a mask and identify himself, because we aren't sure there's a killer at all, but only time and chance and that what might be called fate. You might not be surprised when I suggest Aickman is a bit of an acquired taste.

Aickman has long been a favorite of adventurous readers who search high and low for the forgotten or the overlooked, the challenging and the obscure; in recent years his reputation has grown and grown, and  his books have been brought back into print by several publishers. After years of fruitless search myself, I recently bought, for a few dollars more than I generally like to pay for old paperbacks, a copy of Cold Hand in Mine (Berkley Books reprint 1979, cover art by Michael Whelan). The paperback's spine reads SCIENCE FICTION but that is ridiculous: these are quiet, literate tales of creepiness; the front and back ad copy oversell it and I wonder of buyers' remorse back in the day...

I bought a hardcover copy of Painted Devils (1979, never issued in paperback) years ago because, of course, Danse Macabre. And to be honest, I never really took to him: the few stories I read in that collection seemed affected, remote, intellectualized to a sanitary degree. Reading Aickman takes a little more patience than many readers are willing to give, perhaps; it's more akin to reading the classics of James, Blackwood, Machen, and that crew, even though he was writing through what I loosely call the modern era. That is to say, his type of fiction, was somewhat out of style. I mean, that Whelan cover art up there, there's nothing like that in the book, either in imagery or mood. As you can see below, the hardcover editions featuring Edward Gorey's macabre gentility reflect a bit more accurately the uncanny chills you'll find inside.

These stories generate little heat; no melodrama, no generic twist, no jump scares, no slow dawning of horrible realization. When the "horror" occurs, rarely does it overly alarm or unduly concern anyone. The polite thing seems to be to ignore it... for that whisper of other worlds, or even an intimation that our perception of this world is flawed and incomplete, not up to the task, is simply intolerable. Characters view these things askance, never head-on.

Anyway. First story I read in the collection was "The Real Road to the Church," about a young woman’s rental home, her memories of the men in her life, and a creepy country parson who hints at esoteric uses the village had for her house. I found it weak, anemic, Aickman's style doing more to obscure than illuminate, and the twist, as it were, was a common one. Not off to a great start.

Next up, "Niemandswasser" (Aickman is nothing if not a continental author) was better, thank the gods. A young German prince stays at his family’s abandoned seasonal home on Lake Constance. Accompanied by a—friend? Lover?—the prince ponders the local legend of a dangerous something in a part of the lake called No Man’s Water. He consults an old professor of his, who intones, as old professors in these types of tales are wont to do:

If any man examines his inner truth with both eyes wide open, and his inner eye wide open also, he will be overcome with terror at what he finds. That, I have always supposed, is why we hear these stories about a region of our lake. Out there, on the water, in darkness, out of sight, men encounter the image within them.
Then come "The Hospice" and "The Same Dog," both highly readable, intriguing, with clearly delineated settings and such. The former is about a traveler who gets lost and winds up dining at a sort of hotel/waypost filled with overly-attentive aides and oddly-behaviored guests. The latter is a tale of a mundane childhood struck by tragedy. Neither story concludes with what you'd call a resolution, but their utter unwillingness to is what echoes in the reader's mind. "Pages from a Young Girl's Diary" is excellent, meticulously wrought; I'll give you a hint as to its contents: "It was really strange to have Mamma's blood in my mouth. The strangest part was that it tasted delightful; almost like an exceptionally delicious sweetmeat!" I believe this was my intro to Aickman, back in the late '80s/early '90s when I first read this anthology.

"Meeting Mr. Millar" was another high point of Cold Hand for me. A would-be literary pornographer relates his story of "a haunted man rather than of a haunted house." Mr. Millar moves his business into the house the narrator rents a room in. Now telephones are ringing constantly, people banging about all hours, but just who is Mr. Millar? He invites the narrator into his office for a drink of sherry but shows little of himself: "Though everything was in a sense wide open, nothing was revealed from first to last." At one point the narrator is wakened in the middle of the night and what follows is a terrific scene of a midnight creep through darkened halls to peer down a stairwell, the most "horror" moment in this whole book, and the climax, such as it is, horrifies as well.

1988 UK paperback

After failing to engage with the final story, "The Clock Watcher," at any level, I went back to the beginning: "The Swords" is a major work (rightly collected in the 1987 anthology The Dark Descent, David G. Hartwell's towering anthology that traces the horror story's evolution through the 20th century), more immediately interesting and accessible perhaps to the general reader than some of Aickman's other more opaque tales. With its careful layering of social and sexual unease, set in a dreary English town that features a half-hearted amusement park, and the utterly perplexing ritual of the titular objects, "The Swords" is a haunting weird classic.

There was nothing in particular to be seen... The bed looked as if some huge monster had risen through it, but nowhere in the room was there blood. It was all just like the swords.
As I thought about it, and about what I had done, I suddenly vomited. 

Faber & Faber 2016, Tim McDonagh cover illustrating "The Hospice"

There were moments throughout Cold Hand in which I was reminded of Ramsey Campbell, of Dennis Etchison, but in general Aickman is a writer unto himself. This is not always a good thing. At its best, Aickman's craftsmanship is lovely, with care taken to ensure each word and phrase and parenthetical aside heightens the reader's understanding, illuminating even common thoughts and feelings with a fresh light. However other times I was left adrift, either disinterested in the details (foreign royalty, World War I, fancy boarding schools for sickly rich kids, clocks) or unsure of just what Aickman was trying to impart upon the reader. More than once I had to stop and reread passages several times to ascertain what exactly was happening. Stories would end and some small comprehension would be whisked away from me. Am I a poor reader, or is Aickman fucking with me? Or is this all an example of the uncanny? I still kinda don't know.

Friday, January 13, 2017

RIP William Peter Blatty (1928 - 2017)

Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty has died, less than a week after his 89th birthday. If you've only seen the movie, do yourself a favor and read the novel too. It's truly astounding and deserves its legendary status.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Yellow Fog by Les Daniels (1988): Blood and Tears

Now here's a Stephen King paperback blurb you can believe! Author Les Daniels (1943-2011) had been writing his series of historical vampire novels for about a decade, all featuring the "protagonist"  Don Sebastian Villanueva, an immortal Spanish nobleman. Yellow Fog (Tor Books, August 1988/cover by Maren) was originally published in 1986 by specialty genre publisher Donald M. Grant (see cover below) and is the second-to-last in the series. The only other novel of his I've read is the last one, No Blood Spilled (1991), which I quite enjoyed. In fact I wished Daniels had written more of these! Daniels has lively way with common classic monster tropes, delivered in the fond, knowing manner of someone well-acquainted with them. Yellow Fog is highly reminiscent of Charles Grant's Universal Monsters series (also published by Donald M. Grant) but surpasses that because Daniels is a much, much livelier writer, engaging the reader with effortlessly-drawn characters and setting.

To begin: after an intense train crash prologue in 1835 that leaves one survivor, we move forward to 1847 and meet twenty-ish Londoner Reginald Callender, a callow, immature, shallow, and greedy fellow. Rather than being a unlikable protagonist, Reggie (how he hates that diminutive!) provides much delight for the reader as he is repeatedly confounded in his efforts to secure vast wealth at his own minimum cost. His rich uncle William Callender, he of upper-crust London country clubs, of wealth and taste and hidden vice, has shuffled off this mortal coil, which doesn't upset Reginald overmuch as he stands to inherit the old man's hard-earned money. And yet that is not to be. Even though betrothed to the lovely Felicia Marsh, a young woman with her own inheritance—and the survivor of that earlier train crash— Reginald is beside himself with frustrated greed when he learns Uncle W. left behind nothing save enough to cover his (extensive) funerary, legal, and my-mistresses-shall-be-cared-for-after-I'm-gone costs.

Felicia, as well as her middle-aged Aunt Penelope, are intrigued by all manner of the occult, superstition, and questions of life after death. "Death is only a passage," Felicia tells a nonplussed Callender after his uncle dies, "A journey to another land." She speaks of a man named Newcastle, who can communicate with spirits, and invites Callender along with her and Auntie to one of his seances. Grumbling at the indignity of a betrothed who believes such nonsense, Callender goes along. He's taken aback by this Sebastian Newcastle: clad in black, drooping black mustache on a scarred white face, inviting them into his darkened home lit only by candlelight. The creepy seance that follows, in which Uncle W., in all his irascibility, appears, does nothing to convince Callender that Newcastle isn't a fraud after Felicia's inheritance. Neither does Callender realize that Newcastle is, the astute reader will have noticed, a real live vampire.

Callender, suspicious as only a crook can be, hires a former "runner," a kind of private detective, named Samuel Sayer, to look into the elusive Newcastle. Callender learns of Sayer through Sally Wood, a nightclub singer and dancer, a woman of "cheerful disarray" who would not do as a wife but does great as a mistress (but of course) and who is fond of a new work of fiction titled Varney the Vampyre ("Sounds deucedly unpleasant to me," he sniffs). A wonderful scene ensues of Callender tracking Sayer down at The Black Dog, a dingy bar of ill repute, and later Sayer explains who, and what, he is, and what he does and how. It's a great bit of political theater, a hard-bitten old gent explaining things to a clueless snob.

"A pup like you has no idea what London was like before there was such a thing as a Bow Street runner. Nobody to enforce the law at all... [the runners were] men who were as sly and strong and ruthless as the thieves and murderers they were hired to catch. And I was one of 'em!"

 Donald M. Grant hardcover, 1986, art by Frank Villano

A visit to Madame Tussaud's House of Horrors thrills and chills Aunt Penelope and Felicia as they are accompanied there by Mr. Newcastle, Callender muttering behind the latter two as they view torture instruments and waxen murderers. Then out steps aged Mme. Tussaud herself, who takes one look at Newcastle and states, "Have we not met, sir?... There were stories in Paris, when the revolution raged, about a magician, one who had found a way to keep himself alive forever." Newcastle, polite and deferential as all get-out, engages her in an ironic conversation that Callender can barely stand. The nerve of this guy! Sayer really better be worth it, he's thinking. Of course you can probably guess what happens to Sayer, and to Felicia as she's drawn under Newcastle's spell. Or is she? Perhaps she goes willingly, to see the other side...

Of course you may be able to guess what happens a lot of the time. That's rather the enjoyment factor in Daniels's work. He doesn't belabor readers with details they can fill in themselves: the stinking fog-enshrouded cobblestone streets of early 19th century London; a dank, frigid dock on the Thames; a derelict bar; the Gothic horror/romance of a church graveyard haunted by the shades of the dead; the candlelit drawing room during a seance. Sketched briefly, these settings are perfect for the characters that inhabit them. Sharp dialogue and keenly-observed human folly Daniels does quite well, and his knack for plot, short chapters that clearly advance the narrative, are quite welcome; moments of dramatic confrontation are scattered throughout the book, satisfying hooks of grue that propel readers forward. Daniels could have in my opinion been quite a scriptwriter.

Raven UK paperback 1995, art by Les Edwards

Weaving interesting historical trivia into an larger story to add color and background isn't always easy; it can read too much like an encyclopedia entry. Daniels knows, and does, better. In Yellow Fog, readers will learn a bit about the origins of England's professional police force, the class distinctions relevant to it, and find it all fits with the larger tale of vampirism, greed, and desire (Daniels shrewdly compares Callender's incipient alcoholism to the vampire's bloodthirst). I read the novel over two cold, rainy days, listening to John Williams's score for the 1979 Dracula, and I consider it time well-spent.

Early on the notion struck me that, considering the familiar scenario, that Yellow Fog was a cozy-horror. Unlike the cozy-mystery, there is violence, and sex, fairly explicit, but in such a way that is easily digestible; Daniels is not upending decades of horror convention, he is simply utilizing them in a satisfying, understanding manner. You know what you're getting, you get it, maybe a little bit extra, but it's all been seen before... which is precisely the point. Sayer's meeting with Newcastle, Callender meeting Sally at novel's end: both provide the serious horror creeps. The finale sets up No Blood Spilled, I guess at some point I'm gonna go back and read the previous installments, see what I missed.

Origins of cover art: in El Vampiro (1957)

This is horror comfort food, if you will. When you want mom's mashed potatoes, or grandma's mac n' cheese, nothing else will do; when you want a Universal or Hammer-style vampire story, that's what you want and no revisionist take will do. Okay, there's some Anne Rice-style eroticism tinged with immortal regret, but you had that first in Universal Dracula's Daughter way back in '36. Daniels knows what's up.

Then they were on the carpet, her carefully coiffed pale hair spilled upon its darkness, her gown in disarray, her body throbbing with delight and dread. She felt an ecstasy of fear, stunned more by the desires of her flesh than by the small, sweet sting she felt as he sank into her and life flowed between them... She took life and love and death and made them one... 
She was at peace, but Sebastian knew that she would rise full of dark desire when the next sun set. 
His tears, when they came, were tinged with her bright blood.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Razored Saddles, ed. by Joe Lansdale & Pat LoBrutto (1989): One-Half Hillbilly and One-Half Punk

Boasting cover art that strikes a sweet spot between absurd and awesome, the wonderfully-titled Razored Saddles (Avon Books paperback, October 1990) rustles up a heap of horror/SF/western/whatever short fiction to boot. Edited by the always-welcome Texan Joe R. Lansdale and co-conspirator Pat LoBrutto, the anthology collects a hatful of recognizable genre names of the day, plus a few new to almost anybody. I remember this tome way back when thanks to that cover (thanks to Lee MacCleod) and its regrettable joke categorization on the spine, "cowpunk." But Western-themed anything had always been low in my interest level, and it pains me to say that my holiday reading of Razored Saddles reminded me why.

Lansdale and McCammon, c. 1990

Another of Robert McCammon's pleasant, inoffensive horror tales, "Black Boots," begins the anthology. A cowboy is being followed across the desert by a gunslinger wearing the titular objects. He stops in a dusty small "town" to drink some watered-down whiskey but soon sees "Black Boots" at the door of the saloon. Ironic tragedy follows. Its touches of surrealism are well-noted, but McCammon's simplistic style neuters the creepiness and final twist.

"Thirteen Days of Glory" by Scott A. Cupp upends a famous Western showdown with a decidedly transgressive aspect. Freedom must be for everyone or for none at all. Not bad, rather daring, probably offensive to some and liberating for others. Cupp's story is engaging and yet sad, one of the few here that are memorable.

"Gold" by Lewis Shiner is strong, well-told, tinged by magic-realism (a style much favored by genre writerly-writers), set in Creole swamps with strong characterization, but it ends with a damp whimper as it goes into mind-numbing financial details. A huge letdown.

Pulphouse Paperbacks, 1991, art by Doug Herring

David J. Schow's "Sedalia" is just... weird. Not fun weird, not weird weird, but just kinda what? weird, a proto-bizarro tale of ghost dinosaurs, maybe some kind of fossil fuel metaphor. Taking its title from the old-as-dinosaurs TV show "Rawhide," we've got "drovers" herding those ghost dinos in some future Los Angeles. It's marred by juvenile talk of dinosaur poop and incomprehensible politics, although I appreciated the fact that characters refuse to call a brontosaurus an apatosaurus as it "seemed too-too." 2015 showed that was correct.

Introduced by the editors as a bit of "Weird Tales" or EC Comics, Ardath Mayhar's "Trapline" is precisely that: a fur-trapper and a gory comeuppance. Sure, why not, whatever. The late Melissa Mia Hall, whose short fiction I've enjoyed in the past, contributes "Stampede," about a single mom and her obnoxious brood and her attempts to raise them right. Realism to spare, sure, but wow those kids suck.

Dark Harvest 1989 hardcover, art by Rick Araluce

Two of my least favorite '80s horror writers, F. Paul Wilson and Richard Laymon, join the rodeo but get bucked off. Respectively, "The Tenth Toe" and "Dinker's Pond" aren't as bad as some works I've read by these guys, but they're both flat and immature, corny and obvious. Several names were new to me, even for a almost-30-year-old anthology: Lenore Carroll, whose "Eldon's Penitente," with its theme of pain, suffering, loss, and guilt, is rather memorable; and Robert Petitt, who swipes Lansdale's title and uses it all-too-literally in an SF tale.

Science fiction features in Al Sarrantonio's "Trail of the Chromium Bandits" and Gary Raisor's "Empty Places." Neither did anything for me, although the latter's mawkishness struck me as particularly lame and derivative of both Lansdale and Ray Bradbury. Neal Barrett Jr's tale of a Native criminal "Tony Red Dog" reads like Elmore Leonard-lite when it is readable at all, which it isn't mostly thanks to a constant barrage of character first and last names. Howard Waldrop's metafictional academic treatise on Western movies, "The Passing of the Western," strains even the most patient reader with its faux film history. God it was a grind getting through these stories.

The final three tales offer some surprises. Lansdale's own story, "The Job," is a mean little bugger with a nasty twist, a pre-Tarantino riff about two articulate killers and their unexpected target. I hope you like racist slurs, though. Richard Christian Matheson offers "I'm Always Here," with his usual pared-down prose, utilized here to solid effect in a story about a dying country singer in the Hank Williams mold finds a new lease on life. It's way better than most of the stories in Matheson's Scars. And for the finale, there's Chet Williamson and his too-cutely titled "'Yore Skin's Jes's So Soft 'n Purty...'" Man, there's a horrific climax waiting for you here.

That "cowpunk" novelty can't sustain an entire anthology, and the few tales here that I kind of enjoyed aren't essential reads by any means. I know every author has more and better work elsewhere; head out on the trail searching for those doggies, and let Razored Saddles fade into the sunset.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ramsey Campbell Born on This Date, 1946

Greetings 2017! Let's start the new year appreciating Ramsey Campbell and the paperback covers for the UK editions of his books. Of course several years ago I posted the US Tor covers. Enjoy them all!

PS: Working on a new review of a late-'80s anthology I read over the holidays. Did not enjoy it at all but wanted to start the new year on a more positive note.